New York Times reporter James Risen was ordered Tuesday to appear at a Jan. 5 hearing to give limited testimony in advance of the trial of a former CIA officer who is charged with revealing classified information, including embarrassing details of CIA operations in Iran that appeared in Risen’s 2006 book, “State of War.”
It was not clear whether Risen would testify, despite Justice Department assurances that it would not ask him whether former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling was his source for the book or other questions that might help identify his source. The book detailed purported CIA mistakes in handling agents in Iran during alleged attempts to subvert Iran’s nuclear program.
FOR THE RECORD, 1:54 p.m. May 11, 2015: An earlier version of this story's headline referred to Jeffrey Sterling as a CIA agent. He is a former CIA officer.
“We are just going to wait and see what happens next year when he comes into court,” said Edward B. MacMahon Jr., one of Sterling’s lawyers. “The Justice Department has decided one thing but nobody knows what Mr. Risen has decided. We don’t know what he’s going to do or whether he will answer some questions and not answer others or what.”
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said she would hold a practice run of Risen’s testimony Jan. 5 to see what questions he was willing to answer.
One complication is that any agreement between the Justice Department and Risen would not bind Sterling’s lawyers, who said Tuesday they were unsure what questions they might want to ask Risen during cross-examination. They could ask questions that he would refuse to answer, putting him at risk of being held in contempt of court.
The Justice Department said in a court filing Tuesday that it wants Risen to confirm that he wrote the book and two other related newspaper articles; to testify that he had an arrangement with his source to keep his name confidential; and to confirm that Sterling was his source for a 2002 article in which Risen attributed comments to Sterling.
The Justice Department says Risen had agreed in a 2011 affidavit to answer similar questions, but his lawyers were noncommittal Tuesday.
Such an agreement might have seemed attractive to Risen in 2011, when it appeared he might go to jail for refusing to testify. But this year, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. has said repeatedly that no reporter would go to jail under his watch for doing his or her job. Holder, who has been severely criticized for going after reporters, said recently that he regretted the department’s handling of at least one of those cases.
Holder's public statements may have diminished any incentive for Risen to cooperate.
The Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau and other news outlets reported last week that the Justice Department would scale back its demands for Risen’s testimony.
“We are in a very different juncture now than we were several years ago,” Risen’s lawyer, Joel Kurtzberg, said last week. “A lot has happened since then. We've been at this for years.”
Neither Risen nor Kurtzberg could be reached for comment Tuesday.